Florida Legislature passes rewritten election rules critics say aim to suppress voter turnout

TALLAHASSEE — In a move critics say is aimed at helping Republican chances in 2012, the Legislature on Thursday rewrote the rules for voting in Florida.

The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, a harsh critic of President Barack Obama, who needs another Florida victory to secure a new term.

Republicans said the changes are needed to preserve the integrity of the voting system and prevent fraud, but no GOP lawmaker cited a specific example of voter fraud in Florida.

“When we don’t protect the vote, we disenfranchise everybody in this state,” said the House sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “Only we can set the rules to be sure their votes are protected.”

Democrats accused the GOP of trying to suppress voter turnout to diminish Obama’s chances of re-election.

The more than 150-page bill reduces the days of early voting, requires some voters who have moved to cast provisional ballots, tightens the time for third-party groups to submit voter registration forms and reduces the time that signatures on citizen-led ballot initiatives are valid.

Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner called the bill an “outrageous attack” on the right to vote, and said: “There’s been no fraud. Where are the statistics to back up that allegation?”

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said Florida has made voting too easy, and that people should be required to make an effort to cast a ballot.

“I want them to fight for it,” Bennett said. “I want them to have to walk across town to vote.”

After two highly partisan debates, the Senate passed HB 1355 by a 25-13 vote. The House passage followed on a 77-38 party-line vote.

The most debated parts of the bill deal with a pullback in early voting and making it harder for voters who move, many of them college students, to update their legal addresses when they vote. Early voting has been more popular among Democrats and is widely credited with helping Obama win Florida in 2008. It will be curtailed from 14 days to eight, ending the Saturday before the election.

Elections officials could run early voting sites from six to 12 hours a day, but the new schedule eliminates the possibility that Democrats could mount a last-minute early-voting push at African-American churches on the Sunday before the election.

The bill eliminates a 40-year-old convenience that allowed voters who have moved since the last election to update their address at the polls.

The change allows voters to do that only if they have moved within a county. All other voters who haven’t updated their addresses must cast last resort provisional ballots, except for active military personnel.

Several Republican lawmakers cited voter fraud to justify the changes. Over the past three years, 31 cases of alleged voter fraud in Florida were referred to state law enforcement agents and three resulted in arrests.

The bill also frustrates groups that sign up voters, such as the League of Women Voters. They must register with the state and could face $50-a-day fines if they don’t turn in voter registration forms within 48 hours.

The voting changes will be in use statewide in what is expected to be a high-turnout election. President Obama is seeking a crucial second win in Florida, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is running for re-election and all 160 legislative seats are open because of reapportionment. Florida will pass New York with 29 electoral votes, third-highest among states.

If Scott signs the bill as expected, the changes will require approval by the U.S. Department of Justice Voting Rights Section — a process known as “preclearance.”

Nelson called on Scott to veto the bill, calling it “bad for our democratic process,” and said he has asked the Justice Department to investigate if the bill becomes law.

In the Senate, Republicans Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Mike Fasano of New Port Richey joined 11 Democrats in opposing it. Neither the supervisors of elections nor Scott’s hand-picked chief elections official, Secretary of State Kurt Browning, recommended the changes to early voting or voter registration.

The League of Women Voters urged its members to blitz lawmakers with pleas to reject the bill, and the Florida Public Interest Research Group said the bill would disenfranchise thousands of votes on Election Day 2012.